The Stunning Negligence That Doomed Obamacare's Launch

These aren't forgivable glitches that no one could have foreseen. They're unforced, avoidable errors that show signs of being difficult to fix.

Observers could reasonably dismiss the earliest reports of Obamacare website failures. Multiple glitches at launch aren't ideal, but they happen to even successful projects. So long as the overall effort was competently run, there was no reason to panic: If most everything was as it should've been, fixes could've been made quickly.  

But Obamacare wasn't competently run.

It's too early to know exactly what is wrong or how long it will take to fix. But the latest reporting on rollout problems reveals that they're "the result of gross negligence, ignorance, and the violation of engineering best practices at just about every step of the way," as Dan Hanson persuasively argues at Marginal Revolution

The details reported in the New York Times are embarrassing, this one in particular: "It went live on Oct. 1 before the government and contractors had fully tested the complete system." The newspaper says that "disarray has distinguished the project," and that a key responsibility was given to unqualified personnel:

... the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency in charge of the exchange, is responsible for making sure that the separately designed databases and pieces of software from 55 contractors work together. It is not common for a federal agency to assume that role, and numerous people involved in the project said the agency did not have the expertise to do the job and did not fully understand what it entailed.        

Experts consulted about how long it might take to fix the website and related computer systems couldn't agree on a timeframe. This PBS segment is informative:

Elsewhere, some software experts say it would be better to start from scratch, and others are warning about information-security flaws in a site that's been a rush job.

The latest news as of Sunday night:

A data center critical for allowing uninsured Americans to buy health coverage under President Barack Obama's healthcare law went down on Sunday, halting online enrollment for all 50 states in the latest problem to hit the program's troubled rollout... Obama administration and company officials could not say how long it would take to fix the connectivity problem. 

This is all bad news. 

Whatever one thinks of Obamacare, it is the law, and insofar as it functions poorly, lots of people will suffer as a result. There's no excuse for launching it without adequate testing; for putting an unqualified bureaucracy in charge of coordinating contractors; or for establishing deadlines for buying health insurance without any way of knowing whether the exchanges would be ready in time. Let's hope that the law's approach to reform isn't as poorly thought through as its rollout.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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